Strangers Among Us

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

My father immigrated to Canada in the late nineteen sixties, leaving his native Guyana to pursue higher education at the University of New Brunswick. At the time, he was newly married and the father of a one-year-old boy but neither my mother nor my brother came with him that first year. He was alone- a twenty-one year foreign student, unfamiliar with Canadian culture, living in university residence and financing both his education and his family through menial janitorial jobs. By his own account, that first winter in the new land was an abysmal one, characterized by loneliness, overwhelming homesickness and failing grades. When my mother and brother finally joined him in Canada the following year, his situation improved but only marginally. My mother stayed at home to raise my brother- difficult enough under ideal circumstances but significantly harder in an alien culture, living in an uncarpeted, barely furnished basement apartment. And yet, my mother and father made a life for themselves in Canada. Somehow, my father dramatically improved his grades, earned both a bachelors and a masters degree, got his citizenship and began a career as a geologist working for the New Brunswick Provincial Government. My mother pulled off the equally difficult feat of raising three, healthy boys- two of them becoming physicians and one of them becoming an Anglican Priest. The story of my parents mirrors the story of so many immigrants to Canada, struggling, at first, against considerable odds, and yet, somehow, becoming citizens who have contributed greatly to our society.

In a recent issue of the Globe and Mail, columnist John Ibbitson speaks of immigration as one way of halting or perhaps reversing the demographic decline now plaguing the Maritime Provinces- a decline marked by the departure of working aged citizens to other Canadian Provinces capable of providing employment. (Ibbitson, J, 2015 March 21, The Incredible Shrinking Region. The Globe and Mail, p. F1). The consequences of such decline, Ibbitson presents in dire terms: “Slashed health care, education and other social services; ever greater departures by anyone able to escape the vortex; rural towns that become ghost towns; growing provincial deficits and debts, along with steadily reduced credit ratings that will increase borrowing costs.” Summarizing the position of Ray Ivany, President of Acadia University, Ibbitson suggests that key to any economic turn around “is overcoming the region’s resistance to outsiders, by aggressively targeting and attracting immigrants. That, in turn, will require a change of mindset, both within government and the population.”

Having no knowledge of labour economics, its hard for me to comment on Ivany’s position. Can an influx of immigrants truly transform the economy of the Maritimes, especially when there are fewer opportunities here in the east and, hence, less incentive to stay and build a life? I’m not sure what the overall demographic data says but I do know about the choice my parents made. They chose to stay. Consequently, they were able to make a meaningful contribution to this Province, adding to the workforce and raising a family. I believe that one of the reasons they were able to endure the trials that immigrants face is because they received welcome from certain native New Brunswickers. In my parent’s case, these New Brunswickers were the ones that they met in the church community that adopted them, Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Fredericton. These were folks who were willing to welcome my parents into their homes, to provide friendship and encouragement and to make a place for them in their Christian community.

Indeed, as Jesus suggests in Matthew 25, to the extent that we are willing to welcome the foreigner, we are willing to welcome him” (Matt. 25:43). So, with this and other passages of scripture in mind, Jasmine and I have, with the help of the volunteers and staff from the Saint John YMCA Newcomer Connections, launched what we call The English Language Cafe. Each Friday morning in the little kitchen at Stone Church, we brew some coffee and sit down with a small group of newcomers to chat. This gives them an opportunity to, not only practice their English skills with native speakers, but better familiarize themselves with Canadian culture. Most important of all, it helps them overcome the sense of loneliness and isolation that they may struggle with from time to time as newcomers to a culture that is both strange and daunting.

As I get to know my newcomer friends, I can’t help but be reminded of my own family. Like them, my parents came to New Brunswick as strangers, stepping off the plane into a cold and unfamiliar land with the monumental task of building a whole new life for themselves. For this reason, I feel a sense of kinship with them. My hope and prayer is that all native New Brunswickers would feel a similar sense of kinship with the newcomers in their midst. As I overheard a man say in Tim Horton’s the other day, “Unless we’re native, we all came here by boat, whether we like to admit it or not.” Or, as the Lord God said to his people through the mouth of the prophet Moses, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were all strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Can the demonstration of such stranger-love transform the economy of our province? I’m not sure. It will, however, be a small, humble but, nonetheless, beautiful demonstration of the economy of the Kingdom of God.

By Terence Chandra

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